The late, great author Thomas Wolfe was right: You can’t go home again.
When I visited family and friend up north last month, I didn’t even try – but not for any of the reasons Wolfe wrote about in his highly acclaimed, posthumously released novel.
I can’t go home again because the “Wonder Years”-like, suburban community in which I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s now exists only in my memories – nostalgic images of a special place that bears no resemblance to today’s crime-ridden, drug-infested, cops-versus-thugs war zone.
Maybe you’ve read about it.
Just two weeks ago, in fact, President Donald Trump traveled to my childhood hometown – Brentwood, N.Y. – to condemn the brutality and barbarism of the MS-13 gangs, and promise increased federal support to help local police combat these domestic terrorists.
Speaking in an auditorium filled with law enforcement officers, Trump said, “We cannot accept this violence one day more.”
Nor can we, here in Indian River County, my home for most of the past 15 ½ years.
It was shortly after an off-duty deputy, Garry Chambliss, was fatally struck by a stray bullet while standing outside a house in Gifford in February that Sheriff Deryl Loar vowed a crackdown on crime in that community.
“Indian River County has experienced too much violence,” Loar said in a news conference held three days after the Chambliss shooting, adding, “I can assure you that the patrol efforts will be stepped up in this community. Enough is enough. … It’s my pledge to make sure that the streets of Gifford will be safe again.”
Armed with public outrage over the veteran deputy’s senseless death and the support of Gifford community leaders, Loar then launched “Operation Safe Streets,” an initiative to round up at-large felons, people named in outstanding warrants and other local scofflaws, and confiscate illegal drugs and firearms.
Thus far, Loar’s efforts have not produced Chambliss’ killer, but, from Feb. 20 through the end of last week, they have resulted in 118 arrests on felony and/or misdemeanor charges, stemming mostly from illegal drugs and guns but also from outstanding warrants.
Drugs – particularly cocaine, marijuana and pills – have been seized, along with six firearms. Many of the arrests were made during traffic stops. During some of the stops, only citations were issued.
“It was kind of a blitz,” Loar said of the crackdown, which included the use of extra patrols by deputies in marked cars, detectives in unmarked cars and K-9 units.
And, for the most part, the operation in Gifford, which Loar described as our “busiest zone for criminal activity,” has been a success.
“We’re still dealing with about three shootings a week, either observed by deputies or called in by members of the community,” Loar said. “We had 59 reports of shots fired from June 1 through July 31.”
It was in March, however, that an exchange of gunfire between the sheriff’s SWAT team and a suspected drug dealer left an innocent, 21-year-old woman dead.
In an ironic twist, Loar said that particular mission wasn’t directly related to “Operation Safe Streets.” Yet, because of Alteria Woods’ death and the media attention it attracted, that episode has become the face of the crackdown – especially to those who believe her death resulted from overzealous policing.
“Some members of the community have made it the face of the operation,” Loar said. “But the operation was going to continue, regardless of that incident, and it’s still ongoing, though we have backed off a bit for manpower reasons.
“You’re going to see it continue in some form, not only in Gifford but wherever we see a need for increased patrols.”
For the record: A grand jury last month exonerated the SWAT team members who fired their weapons during the March 19 drug raid in which Woods was killed.
Loar said he hoped the grand jury’s findings would satisfy those who questioned the SWAT team’s tactics, but he knows some will continue to believe the officers were too eager to shoot.
And just so you know: Loar said he and his command team were discussing a crackdown in Gifford before the Chambliss shooting because the Sheriff’s Office had noticed “criminal activity reaching a pretty high crescendo” in that area.
“Nobody will believe that, but even if Deputy Chambliss hadn’t been shot, we still would’ve had Operation Safe Streets,” Loar said. “After the shooting, however, there was an outcry from the community to do something right away.”
During Loar’s Feb. 20 news conference, Tony Brown, president of the local NAACP chapter, echoed the sheriff’s “enough is enough” sentiment and backed the promised crackdown on crime – especially violent crime – in Gifford.
“Our community is in crisis,” Brown said then. “He has the prescription … I trust him, and I know that he’s going to do the right thing.”
Six months later, Brown said he still trusts Loar and supports the crackdown, though he has heard reports of incidents in which “overzealous” deputies were unnecessarily harsh in handling stops.
“I’ve seen some good and I’ve seen some bad,” Brown said. “I’ve heard some good comments and I’ve heard some bad comments. I’ve received good reports and bad. Most of the time, it depends on who’s telling the story.
“But something needed to be done,” he continued. “Things were getting out of hand and we needed to try something. Sometimes, you try things and it’s not perfect. Mistakes are made, and you can’t always put it on the sheriff. There are levels beneath him.
“It’s one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situations, and you have to look at it in its entirety,” he added. “We, as a community, also have to do some introspection. We have some issues.”
Veteran deputy Teddy Floyd, the sheriff’s community outreach and crime prevention specialist, said an overwhelming majority of Gifford residents support “Operation Safe Streets” and want to live in a safe, crime-free community.
“I’d say 90 percent really like what we’re doing,” Floyd said. “The 10 percent who don’t are mostly the ones doing the bad stuff. Unfortunately, you never hear from the people who aren’t complaining.
“There are certain elements within the community who don’t want the law, or they think they should get to decide when the law is applied,” he added. “That’s not going to happen. We’ve got to protect the community.”
Floyd said tensions created in the wake of Woods’ death have eased since the grand jury report, but he’s still working to “heal the community” and “bridge the gap” between residents and law enforcement.
To that end, Floyd said the Sheriff’s Office is planning to offer a “citizen’s academy” at which community members can be educated about law enforcement and various aspects of the deputy’s job.
“We’re hoping to get started within a month or so,” Floyd said. “We’ve been reaching out to the community. This is a chance for the community to reach back and learn about what we do. People need to know there’s a heart behind this badge.”
While Loar’s crackdown has taken drugs, criminals and a few guns off the streets, it also has made his deputies’ jobs more dangerous.
Two weeks ago, while two deputies conducted a traffic stop in Gifford, an unidentified bystander fired two shots at them. The gunman has not been found, and Loar described the incident as an “ambush-style shooting,” though the deputies weren’t hit.
“This year has been exceedingly dangerous for our local law enforcement,” Loar said in a statement after the incident.
Asked last week about the increased danger as a result of “Operation Safe Streets,” Loar said his deputies have become “more cognizant” of their surroundings because “the bad guys are fighting back more.”
Still, Loar believes he’s doing what’s necessary, what’s right and what the good people of Gifford want him to do.
“We’ve slowed down the criminal activity, and we’ll continue to do so,” he said. “There’s still work to do out there. We’re not going to let the people down.”
He can’t let the bad guys win.
I’ve seen what happens when they do.
‘Operation Safe Streets’ necessary despite mixed reviews
The late, great author Thomas Wolfe was right: You can’t go home again.